It is nature, poet John Caddy says, that saved him when he was young and escaping a rough life on Minnesota's Iron Range. And it is nature that saves him now, 17 years after a stroke paralyzed his left side and left him with a non-working arm, difficulty speaking and short-term memory loss.

The view out the window, he said, is "what saved my life."

For 50 years, Caddy has honored the natural world in his poetry, teaching and writing. Now the McKnight Foundation has honored Caddy with its Distinguished Artist Award. In its 15th year, the prestigious honor, which has gone to writers Robert Bly and Bill Holm, theater artist Lou Bellamy, painter Mike Lynch and others, carries a $50,000 honorarium.

"It's totally unexpected, and quite fun," Caddy said Tuesday morning from his home in Forest Lake. "I never expected any kind of award again. Poets never expect awards."

Caddy, 74, is the author of five books, including "The Color of Mesabi Bones," which won both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Minnesota Book Award. He has also been honored with the Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Arts Education, a Bush Foundation fellowship, and a McKnight Artist Fellowship.

McKnight's president Kate Wolford called Caddy "Minnesotan to the core." "He is at once an outstanding artist and an inspiring environmentalist," she said in a prepared statement.

Grew up on Iron Range

Caddy grew up in Virginia, Minn., the son of a mining engineer. "I had a very messed-up family," he said. "For me, nature was a way to escape, a healing place."

In the 1960s, Caddy began teaching at the University of Minnesota and was a founder of the Minnesota Poets in the Schools Program (now COMPAS). He retired from Hamline University's Center for Global Environmental Education, where he taught students how to use the arts in environmental education.

Always an avid outdoorsman, Caddy took groups of teenagers to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a way to teach them about poetry. In the past 15 years, he has written daily nature poems that he posts on his website, A collection of the poems, "Morning Earth: Field Notes in Poetry," was published in 2003 by Milkweed Editions.

In 2005, Caddy began adding photos to the poetry. "I used to hike and come back with all kinds of images in my head," he said. "I can't do that anymore. I come back with images in my camera instead. I write from photos."

Caddy's selection for the McKnight award was unanimous, said arts program director Vickie Benson.

"This award doesn't go to the shiniest person -- the person who is at the forefront of popularity at the moment," she said. "It is a lifetime achievement award.

"So 'Mesabi Bones' was taken into consideration, but so was the daily writing that he does and sends out to a vast list across the world. He himself says those aren't finished poems, they are thoughts, daily thoughts, but, oh, that I would be able to have a daily thought that comes even close to a couple of his lines."